An argument for herd immunity in response to the COVID-19 pandemic reached in Great Barrington, Massachusetts has led to international criticism and local dismay.
Founded in 1933, the American Institute for Economic Research is a conservative think tank based in Great Barrington with connections to the fossil fuel industry, the Koch family, and other free-market, libertarian think tanks. Reports have connected it to broader efforts to discount the impact of global climate change. The Great Barrington Declaration is the product of a private symposium of epidemiologists, economists, and journalists the institute held earlier this month, and seeks to transform global responses to the coronavirus outbreak.
“The first plank is to spend all the resources that we have been spending, and instead of spending them scattershot as we’ve done to focus the resources to protect the vulnerable," signatory Dr. Jay Bhattacharya told WAMC. "There’s a thousand fold difference between the mortality rate from COVID for people who are older – say, over 60 – versus people who are younger.”
Bhattacharya, a professor of medicine at Stanford University, says the declaration’s goal is to move COVID-19 responses away from lockdowns and toward an approach they describe as “focused protection.”
“People in the non-vulnerable group face a much higher harm from the policies we’ve adopted, the lockdown policies we’ve adopted, both psychologically and physically than from COVID itself,” he said.
By any other name, “focused protection” essentially boils down to a controversial means of responding to the virus.
“Herd immunity is just a fact about every infectious disease that induces immunity at all," said Bhattacharya. "Every single coronavirus – there’s I think four in human circulation – is controlled by herd immunity. Even with or without a vaccine, the endpoint of every single disease control mechanism that involves vaccines where you can’t eradicate the disease has to herd immunity. But that’s just a biological fact. It’s like you’re flying an airplane, and you have to cope with gravity. The only question isn’t, ‘Can I subvert gravity,’ the only question is, ‘Can I land the airplane safely given that there is gravity.’”
Now a COVID patient himself, President Trump has repeatedly embraced the herd immunity strategy, leading to public sparring with his own government’s top infectious disease official Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has said it would result in an enormous death toll.
Bhattacharya points to the high mortality rates in nursing homes as the outcome of an unfocused response.
“At the same time, we’ve imposed enormous costs on the non-vulnerable, the younger people," he said. "We’ve barred schoolhouse doors, we’ve prevented social gatherings to the point where young adults, 1 in 4 seriously considered suicide in June, according to the CDC estimates.”
His comments come at a time where many schools around Massachusetts are returning to in-person education. So far, over 90 students and almost 70 staffers statewide have tested positive for COVID just between the 8th and the 14th.
WAMC: Some are concerned about the long-term effects of COVID, even for young, healthy folks. What do you say to that concern?
BHATTACHARYA: I mean, it’s something to think about, absolutely. The evidence – my read of the evidence is that it’s not particularly common. Every viral infection has these. Like, flu for instance, can have in a small fraction of people some longer term effects. Absolutely something to be concerned about medically. I think the most important consequence of viral infections like COVID is mortality, and the rest I think is also – belong in the calculus.
WAMC: Getting back to the long-term possible impact- So you’re saying that signatories are comfortable with a certain percentage of people experiencing those long-term risks, but that’s weighed against the –
BHATTACHARYA: Well, I’m not comfortable with anyone getting harmed. I don’t want anyone to get harmed from suicide, I don’t want anyone to get harmed from COVID either mortality or from long-term harm. I don’t want people – I think the UN says there’s 130 million additional people who will starve to death as a consequence of the lockdown. I don’t want those 130 million people to die either. We’re not in a position to have zero deaths. The only adult response here is to balance risks – COVID and non-COVID risks – against each other and think of a policy that will minimize social suffering.
The UN’s 2020 State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report estimates that between 83 and 132 million more people may face chronic hunger by the end of this year. It did not say that they will starve to death or that the rise was specifically connected to lockdowns.
The Great Barrington Declaration was quickly criticized by experts around the world, some labeling it “grotesque,” “dangerous” and “half-baked.” But even closer to home, public health officials are lambasting its proposals and defending lockdowns.
“I think it’s unethical to have a policy where you’re going to increase the fatality rate of a disease which in and of itself has a higher transmission rate than many other diseases and has a higher fatality rate than many other diseases,” Alan Kulberg told WAMC.
In nearby Pittsfield, Kulberg is a retired pediatrician and the chair of the board of health – as well as a member of Mayor Linda Tyer’s coronavirus taskforce.
“Their notion of herd immunity is to allow a certain number of people to become ill so you have fewer people left to become ill," he said. "But by doing so, you’re creating a lot of morbidity, a lot of extreme illness, and you’re creating a lot more death by doing so.”
Great Barrington itself is pushing back strongly against the declaration now inextricably attached to the town on the global stage, according to selectboard chair Steve Bannon.
“The town has gone out of its way to ask the citizens and visitors to wear masks, to social distance, to act responsibly, to keep gatherings to a small amount," Bannon told WAMC. "And this is not in line with what the Great Barrington Declaration promotes – which is herd immunity. And this is nothing that the town has any say in, nor has it endorsed.”